The rain looked like it was never going to end. It was falling so hard and fast that we could barely see across the street. It was the kind of day that made you want to curl up inside with a good book, not the kind of day you wanted to spend driving through central Vietnam on the back of a motorbike. Which, of course, was exactly what I had planned.
Driving a motorbike through Vietnam is the preferred way of travel for many. Cheap bikes, stunning scenery, great stops, and lots of adventure. Assuming that you have the guts to do it, which, after my motorbike crash in Nusa Penida, Indonesia, I did not.
That being said, I couldn’t help but be slightly envious of my new friends who had a crash-free history as they planned their motorbike adventures through the famous Hai Van pass that connects Da Nang to Hue. However, I wasn’t the only one who was hesitant to hop on her own motorbike. Another friend, Cara, wasn’t comfortable with the idea either but heard of a program called easy rider where we could hire drivers to take us on the backs of their bikes. Allowing the passenger to take in the stunning scenery without panicking about being behind the wheel….err, handlebars. It was the perfect compromise and we quickly got in touch with the recommended guide. However, as we stood staring out at the endless rain, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a horrible idea.
At the chosen meeting time a shadowy figure made his way through the storm and into the hostel.
“Cara? Hannah?” We went over to meet him, hesitant to hear what he would say about the weather. But instead of cancelling, or telling us to wait, he pulled out two massive plastic bags and started wrapping up our backpacks. Seconds later he was joined by another young man, carrying electric blue plastic raingear for Cara and I. Laughing we pulled on the gaudy pants and matching jackets meant to protect us from the downfall, and followed our drivers, Chau and Xuan, into the storm.
The first twenty minutes or so were awful. I kept my face pointed down against the driving rain that stung at my face. My knees and thighs firmly clenched against the seat of the bike as images of slipping and skidding across the road flashed through my mind. Thankfully, luck soon decided to favour us and the rain slowly dissipated as we approached Da Nang. The sky cleared a little bit and the ride got a whole lot smoother. I lifted my head, and watched as we flew past palm trees, sandy beaches, and dozens of other motorists. Now that I could see, I noticed that both drivers were very safe and attentive. No crazy moves swerving through traffic, a normal speed, eyes on the road. I relaxed, feeling the tension leave my shoulders as I began to enjoy the ride.
One of the best things about this ride is all the stop offs along the way. Our first was the marble mountains; five mountains made of limestone and marble that are a popular pilgrimage site. The area is a religious site; filled with temples and relics. But, the caves of the mountains were also used during the war; the bullet holes still visible in the walls.
We spent about an hour exploring one of the hills. We visited a couple small temples and then decided to check out the caves. Using our phones as flashlight we climbed up jagged, unstable rocks with little idea of where we were actually going. Tired, and sweaty we pulled ourselves out at the top and were rewarded with a beautiful view over the area.
After climbing back down (which was worse than climbing up) we went back to the bikes and left the city of Da Nang; across the golden Dragon Bridge and on towards the highlight of this adventure; Hai Van Pass.
Hai Van Pass is a 21km coastal route through the mountains between Da Nang and Hue. Top Gear made it famous and today it’s known as one of the most beautiful drives in Vietnam. However, it’s also one of the most dangerous; often foggy or misty from the sea. Thankfully, the weather remained on our side as we raced through the winding roads, stopping every so often for photos showing the green jungle, blue sea, and colorful trains snaking below. Every turn was more beautiful than the last and, now completely comfortable on the back of the bike, I couldn’t stop taking photos.
We made a quick stop at the top of the pass for water and little break. On the hill were more war remnants including a large gun turret. While Chau and Xuan sat for a cup of coffee, Cara and I decided to explore. Our electric blue pants getting interesting looks from the bus load of older tourists who had also stopped at the hill top.
After a few more photos we headed back down the hill, stopping in our tracks as we heard a horrible noise. It was like nothing I had heard before and I whipped my head up the road to see what was happening. A large truck drove by in front of us; the back filled with worn, metal cages. Inside; dozens of dogs, all shapes and breeds. Barking, howling, yipping, growling, and crying turned into a heartbreaking cacophony that echoed down the mountains as the truck disappeared out of sight. I was no stranger to the fact that dog meat was a common meal in Vietnam, along with other countries in Asia. But I couldn’t repress the shudder as I thought of my own sweet dog, only one-year-old, back at home.
Noting our distaste, and agreeing with it, Chau and Xuan waited awhile before hitting the road again. Allowing ample time for the dog truck to get far ahead. While the screaming of the dogs still echoed in my ears, I forced myself to accept that here, it was no different than a truck of pigs or chicken off to slaughter, and turned my focus instead to the rolling green hills and white capped waves crashing onto the distant shores below.
We made a quick stop on the beach for lunch, taking the advice of the drivers to try the local seafood; a sweet and spicy fish plate and calamari and ice cold cans of coke. We picked at our food, chatting about our respective trips, travel plans, and exchanging tips. A relaxing break before continuing our motorbike adventure. Our drivers asked if we wanted to see some different things; the Elephant Springs swimming pool or a local boating community. Eager for anything we agreed to go wherever they took us and hopped back onto our bikes and away from the hills.
While the Hai Van pass was stunning, the continuing drive was also beautiful. The mountains provided a dramatic backdrop to the flat plains of grass. After a while of driving we took a turn into the forest, down a bumpy road that eventually led to a parking lot. By this time the rain had started up again and we weren’t surprised to find we were the only ones there. Figuring we probably wouldn’t be able to swim, we decided to walk up to the Elephant Springs anyway. As expected, the water levels were too high and dangerous with the rain, but we stopped beside the water pool with the elephant shaped rock for a little break.
Our last stop wasn’t too far from Elephant Springs. The guys wanted to show us some of rural Vietnam, so pulled off the main road and headed towards the water where a local fishing community lived, a community that lived on their boats. As was expected, living conditions were poor, but there was nothing but warm smiles and waves for us as we sped along. Especially from the children.
We stopped for photos and were quickly approached by young girls. One little girl, probably ten years old, raced up to us and pointed at out cameras “selfie! Selfie!”. Laughing, Cara and I crouched down beside her, happily clicking the camera shutter pointing towards her beaming face.
As we drove farther away from the mountains, traffic began to pick up. More bikes, some cars, and even trucks joined us on the road. Too soon we left the grass and hill vistas for buildings as we entered our final destination; Hue. However, as much as my butt was looking forward to getting off the seat of the bike, I was sad when we pulled up at our new hostel. What started out looking like it might have been a complete disaster turned into one of my most memorable travel experiences so far.
Thinking of booking an easy ride through Hai Van Pass? Be sure to do your research ahead of time. The program is offered in both directions from a variety of companies, but some are not legit and there have been a number of accidents. This is one of those activities where the extra money, meaning a good driver, is worth the cost. If you are looking for a recommendation, we used huemotorbiketour.com . We both felt incredibly safe and have an amazing time.